Lake Okeechobee area still recovering from Irma

OKEECHOBEE COUNTY — Although the “picking up the pieces” part of Hurricane Irma cleanup has been over for a good nine months now, the “putting the pieces back together again” part is still ongoing in many places as Florida marks one year this week since the massive storm made multiple landfalls in the state.

When it comes to their claims for building and other damages plus cleanup cost reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the period when Florida was a presidentially declared disaster area, several of the counties surrounding Lake Okeechobee are not even finished with all the required paperwork and backup materials for verification. And when all that is done, then begins the process of multiple reviews at both the state and federal levels before the FEMA claims finally are paid.
Okeechobee County

The Office of the Division of Emergency Management produced an After Action Report/Improvement Plan that was finalized and submitted to the Okeechobee County Commission on May 1. Emergency Management Director Mitch Smeykal said the response from FEMA and the Florida National Guard, among other relief agencies, was swifter than those to any previous tropical weather events he’s experienced — with personnel in the county assessing damages within 12 hours of Irma’s passing and staying through Oct. 31, 2017. Around 50 people from various agencies were involved in recovery efforts from the Emergency Operations Center over the 10 days it was in full disaster mode.

Mr. Smeykal said that 99 percent of Okeechobee residents who’d lost electrical power saw it restored by Florida Power & Light Co. within five days, and emergency provisions from the State Logistics Resource Center were being distributed within 48 hours of the storm clearing the area.

“Damage to residential structures was substantial and damage to county infrastructure was minimal on the grand scale but extremely costly,” according to the report. Average rainfall throughout the county was 9 inches, with up to 12 or more inches in isolated areas; the highest wind gust officially recorded was 73 miles per hour at 9:45 p.m. on Sept. 10.

Mr. Smeykal said the initial estimate of damage to public infrastructure in Okeechobee County was up to $10 million, and about $1.3 million was spent cleaning up Irma’s debris here. Overall personal property damage in the county was put at more than $155 million.

Glades County

Glades County saw more damage and effects from the storm than many South Florida counties. The EOC there was activated for 15 days; schools were closed for a week; a county-wide curfew was imposed on Monday, Sept. 11, from 9 p.m. until 6 a.m. and was shortened by an hour by the following weekend, but it remained in effect until after power was restored.

Residents in low-lying areas, RV and mobile-home parks were under mandatory evacuation orders days before the storm, and four separate areas were immediately evacuated on Sept. 11 because of flooding. Four shelters were opened, two before Irma hit and two after; at their peak occupancy in the days immediately after the storm, between 400 and 500 people were using them. The county’s special needs shelter ended registrations due to lack of space two days before the storm.

A Lakeport water line broke within 36 hours of Irma’s landfall on Marco Island in Southwest Florida, and the entire county was without power at the time and for several days afterward. The EOC phones went down on Wednesday, Sept. 13, which is when six points of distribution were opened across the county. Government offices reopened that Thursday, and that weekend U.S. Sugar sponsored a barbecue at Muse, which saw some of the worst damage countywide.

FEMA representatives were in Glades County for individual assistance assessments one week after the storm hit, with Muse and Buckhead Ridge first on the list for site visits and the Port LaBelle area, Ortona and Palmdale last. Disaster survivor assistance extended until Nov. 8, with FEMA visiting 2,903 homes, interacting with 1,276 survivors and registering 171 for immediate help. Glades Electric reported 2,940 of its customers’ homes were without power right after the storm passed.

This picture, taken a few days after Irma passed through, shows one of the holes the storm left in the roof on Glades County’s fire station in Muse, which had to be gutted and is being rebuilt. Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/Courtesy photo.

Debris collection didn’t start for about a week afterward, but through approximately the end of winter 2018, the county had spent more than a half-million dollars collecting just under 40,000 cubic yards of vegetative debris and another 1,200-plus cubic yards of construction debris.

Hendry County

In Hendry County Board County Administrator Charles Chapman’s report on the storm summarized: “Hurricane Irma tested us hardily. The team of first responders, Cities of LaBelle and Clewiston and our own staff rose to the occasion … Homes were damaged and debris was everywhere, but we worked diligently to see our communities knitted back together.”

A mandatory evacuation order for eastern Hendry was issued by state officials on Sept. 8. As in Glades, the power was out county-wide, 911 lines were down and curfews were in place for many days. Hendry’s EOC was activated for 35 days after Irma’s landfall; about 140 people worked out of there on recovery efforts.

The highest sustained winds were measured at 90 mph at the LaBelle Municipal Airport, with gusts up to 100 mph. LaBelle and Clewiston both received between 9 and 11 inches of rain, with Felda and Montura getting 16-20 inches. The county’s six shelters were open for 33 days after the storm’s landfall, and 2,500 residents were housed in them. Roadways were cleared quickly, and traffic patterns were re-established in a short time. Points of distribution were set up in multiple locations across the county for residents beginning Sept. 12. Some initial supplies were on hand for distribution.

As for emergency supplies made available after the storm, 345,600 meals, 283,500 bottles of drinking water, 40,000 pounds (or 2,000 tons) of ice, 30,000 tarpaulins for roofs and 30,000 sandbags were distributed through the county’s efforts. Damage assessment began once roadways were cleared and staff could safely make assessments. Approximately 2,000 structures suffered damages.

FEMA personnel weren’t present in the county until Sept. 19 and debris removal started three days later. Total horticultural debris removed was 262,797 cubic yards and 396 tons of construction and demolition debris. Overall cost figures were not available on personal property and public asset damages or cleanup of vegetative and construction debris, but as of January, nearly $4.3 million worth of aid for housing assistance and other needs, plus $1.2 million in rental assistance, was paid by FEMA.


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